In the wild, birds generally spend their time divided between resting, grooming, foraging, and social interactions with flock members. Most wild parrots, depending on the species, generally spend between 6 and 18 hours per day foraging for food. In contrast, most of our pet birds have food provided daily in a bowl. This type of feeding requires no creativity or thought and rarely requires more than 20-30 minutes to consume the meal. What does a bird do with all of that extra time? Unfortunately, if not given other methods to occupy the time, many birds develop abnormal behaviors associated with the other daily activities. This may include feather picking, skin mutilation, screaming, biting, or inappropriate pair bonding. Increasing the available foraging activities will enhance your bird’s life and may prevent these abnormal behaviors. If these abnormal behaviors are already present in your bird, providing foraging activities may help improve these problems.
Creating Foraging Opportunities
What can you do to provide foraging opportunities for your bird? Much of this information is extracted from an excellent DVD developed by Dr. Scott Echols. It is titled Captive Foraging: The Next Best Thing to Being Free. It is available both at our clinic and online through the Zoological Education Network (www.exoticdvm.com). We recommend this DVD to all parrot owners interested in providing environmental enrichment for their birds.
Parrots are intelligent animals that benefit from activities that stimulate their mind. They enjoy learning new things and figuring out answers to puzzles. Several studies have shown that if given the opportunity, birds prefer to forage for their food rather than have it provided in a bowl. This handout describes several examples of foraging activities for your bird, but owners are encouraged to be active in creating other ways to stimulate foraging for their individual bird.
Foraging toys are toys that require some activity to find food. There are several avian pet stores that sell commercial foraging toys. It is important to choose toys that are an appropriate size and skill level for your bird. Foraging toys should initially be simple to solve as some birds will become frustrated if the toys are too difficult. Foot toys are great beginning foraging toys. These are small toys constructed of plastic, wood, cloth, or other material that can be placed in a feeding station or hung from the cage. These toys require the bird to unwrap the end, remove a cover, or manipulate the toy to access the food through holes in the sides. These are all excellent toys to leave in a cage when owners are gone for the day. As your bird becomes more experienced, more advanced toys can be offered. These toys may require unscrewing a wing nut or unlocking a treasure chest. For more complicated toys, you may need to help your bird if they are becoming frustrated. Manipulate the toy yourself to get the treat, but do not share the whole treat with your bird. They will learn from your example.
All toys should be constructed from nontoxic, safe materials. Avoid toys that are breakable, contain lead or zinc, have fibrous synthetic materials such as yarn or nylon, or toys that contain openings that could trap a head or foot. For safe commercial foraging toys, consider Parrot Island (www.parrotislandinc.com) or The Silly Parrot (www.sillyparrot.com).
In addition to commercial foraging toys, inexpensive toys can be created at home using natural products such as untreated wood, paper, or clean PVC pipes. Simple foraging toys include food inside a crumpled paper cup, paper bag, or piece of paper. Foot toys can be created by placing food in untreated wood containers with covers that can be removed or with holes drilled in the side that allows extraction of small food items. A foraging cup or pan filled with untreated wooden beads can be used to hide nuts or seeds, requiring your bird to dig through the inedible objects to find the food item.
Hanging toys are slightly more challenging for some birds. Start with a simple hanging toy such as an unshelled seed or nut hanging by an untreated leather strip. Once your bird has discovered how to lift the object, you can create more difficult opportunities. A food item wrapped in a piece of paper, spinach leaf, or corn husk can be tried next, followed by more complicated toys such as a piece of wood with holes drilled in it containing food items or bamboo foraging toys hanging from various perches. Make sure that hanging toys are hung with safe material such as clean leather strips or untreated cotton rope.
A Foraging Tree
A foraging tree can be used to replace your bird’s current food dishes. It is an excellent way for birds to forage for their next meal. The foraging tree should be located outside your bird’s cage so it is best to allow your bird to forage on the tree only when you are present. We do not recommend that your bird is out of the cage unsupervised.
The foraging tree can be constructed of clean wood or PVC pipe. It should provide several feeding stations, ideally 5-7 per bird, arranged at different levels on the tree. This requires your bird to move around and explore different levels, providing not only a foraging opportunity but also some exercise. The top branch should not be any taller than eye level of the shortest person in the house (excluding small children) and the lowest branch should be no lower than 18 inches to keep your bird on the tree. You may need to have your bird’s wings trimmed to prevent flying off the tree until they learn to enjoy it. The foraging tree should be simple and easy to clean.
Some birds take months to learn how to use the foraging tree, while other birds learn more quickly. It is best to use the foraging tree when your bird is hungry – this will create an incentive to explore the dishes. As with foraging toys, start with simple foraging exercises, then gradually make the opportunities more difficult.
Initially, place food items openly in each feeding station, with only a small amount (1-2 items) in each dish to encourage exploring each place. Once your bird is comfortable moving around the tree to each dish, you can begin hiding the food in each station by covering the dish lightly with a piece of paper or paper towel. This encourages your bird to search for food that they can’t readily see. Once they understand that food is hidden in these locations, the covering can become more difficult to remove. For example, a piece of paper can be firmly attached to the dish with a piece of leather strip or nontoxic tape. You may need to start a hole in the paper to help your bird identify that there is something inside.
As your bird becomes more accustomed to the concept of the foraging tree, you can make it more challenging by placing a foraging toy inside the foraging dish rather than just food items. In addition try placing random quantities of food or toys in the foraging stations – not all stations should have food. This will encourage your bird to move around the tree to each of the stations.
Foraging opportunities should be tailored to your individual bird’s size and experience level. Be creative in providing these opportunities for your bird – these examples are just designed to get you started. You will be surprised by how much your bird (and you) will enjoy these foraging activities!